What is occupational lung disease?

A number of lung diseases can result from workplace (occupational) exposure to substances that irritate your lungs. Some workplaces are worse for this than others. Common industries that pose such risks include mining, textiles and plastics, but there are many others. Breathing in some substances can have effects within hours, but sometimes it can take many years for disease to develop.

Lungs

The pair of organs in the chest responsible for breathing.

Signs and symptoms

General symptoms of lung disease include:

  • Coughing;
  • Shortness of breath;
  • Chest pain and tightness, and;
  • Difficulty breathing.
Anatomy of the lungs.Anatomy of the lungs, showing the areas that may be affected by occupational lung disease. 

Below is a list of common occupational lung diseases, which describes specific symptoms and industries relating to each type.

Lungs

The pair of organs in the chest responsible for breathing.

Types

Asbestosis

Asbestos was once commonly used for insulation in buildings and houses. Although it is no longer used, it is still present in many older buildings, so it is important to check for it before going through with any renovations that might expose you to it.

Asbestosis is a disease caused by inhaling small asbestos fibers, which build up over time and results in scarring of the lungs. This makes the lungs become stiff and causes difficulty breathing.

Other symptoms of asbestosis include:

  • Tightness in the chest;
  • Persistent coughing, and;
  • Bluish skin from lack of oxygen.

Asbestosis gets worse over time and typically does not occur until decades after exposure. Inhaling asbestos can also result in lung cancer and a thickening, or cancer, of the lining of the lungs. Smoking also increases your risk of developing asbestosis and lung cancer.

Ardystil syndrome

Ardystil syndrome is caused by breathing in a substance called Acramin FWN or FWR, which is an aerosol that was used a lot in the textile industry. It tends to result in scarring of the lungs, even with treatment. It eventually leads to respiratory failure and has a poor prognosis.

Berylliosis

Berylliosis is caused by breathing in a light metal called beryllium. It results in small nodules that are often located near the bronchi in clusters.

Industries in which beryllium exposure occurs include:

  • Aerospace;
  • Automotive electronics;
  • Dentistry;
  • Oil and gas;
  • Ceramics, and;
  • Nuclear weapons and reactors.

Calcicosis

Calcicosis is caused by breathing in limestone dust. It is uncommon and results in nodules forming in the lungs.

Hypersensitivity pneumonitis

Hypersensitivity pneumonitis is an inflammatory condition caused by breathing in bacteria, fungi or animal proteins. Symptoms of hypersensitivity pneumonitis include:

  • Fever and chills;
  • Cough, and;
  • Shortness of breath.

Symptoms typically go away within a couple of hours or days after you remove yourself from the source of exposure. If symptoms occur over the long-term, it can be a sign the lungs are scarred.

Industrial jobs that can cause this condition include:

  • Farming;
  • Poultry handling;
  • Grain processing;
  • Working in damp or wet conditions, and;
  • Plastic or textile work.

Lung cancer

Although there are other causes of lung cancer, especially smoking, it can also result from workplace exposure to cancer-causing substances (carcinogens). Occupations that carry a higher risk of lung cancer include:

  • Welding;
  • Painting;
  • Metal and pesticide production, and;
  • Industries that expose you to substances that cause other lung diseases and can also cause lung cancer, such as potential exposure to asbestos in construction work.

Silicosis

Silicosis is a disease caused by breathing in dust containing crystalline silica. Particles in the dust enter the alveoli in the lungs, resulting in impaired oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange in the blood. It can also increase your susceptibility to infections such as tuberculosis.

Symptoms of silicosis include:

  • Shortness of breath;
  • Chest pain;
  • Loss of appetite, and;
  • Respiratory failure, which can be fatal.

Industrial jobs that can cause silicosis include:

  • Mining;
  • Blast operations, and;
  • Stone, glass, flour or clay manufacturing.

Talcosis

Talcosis occurs when you breathe in talc, more properly known as hydrated magnesium silicate. It can also occur if you inject it into your bloodstream, as some recreational drug users unintentionally do. It causes inflammation that leads to scarring of the lungs.

Construction and painting are industries associated with this condition, along with jobs including the manufacture of:

  • Leather;
  • Ceramics;
  • Paper;
  • Plastic;
  • Rubber, and;
  • Cosmetics.

Alveoli

1. The tiny air sacs at the end of the bronchioles in the lungs, where gas exchange occurs. 2. The bony tooth sockets in the jaw.

Bacteria

Microscopic, single-celled organisms with DNA but no definite nucleus. Bacteria are the cause of many human diseases.

Bloodstream

The flow of blood within the blood vessels of the circulatory system.

Bronchi

Airway passages that branch from the windpipe, which themselves branch into smaller passages. Bronchi is plural of bronchus.

Inflammation

A body’s protective immune response to injury or infection. The accumulation of fluid, cells and proteins at the site of an infection or physical injury, resulting in swelling, heat, redness, pain and loss of function.

Lungs

The pair of organs in the chest responsible for breathing.

Respiratory

Relating to respiration, the process of inhaling and exhaling air.

Inflammatory

Relating to or causing inflammation, the body’s protective immune response to injury or infection. This results in an build-up of fluid, cells and proteins at the site of an infection or physical injury, causing swelling, heat, redness, pain and loss of function.

Methods for diagnosis

A chest X-ray is initially performed to determine how severe the problem is. Additional tests that may be done include a computerized tomography (CT) scan of the lungs, lung function tests, and examining your airways by putting a thin tube with a camera down them (bronchoscopy). A tissue sample (biopsy) of your lung may also be taken to be tested in the lab.

Computerized tomography

A scan that uses X-rays to create a 3D image of the body. This can detect abnormalities more effectively than a simple X-ray can.

Lungs

The pair of organs in the chest responsible for breathing.

X-ray

A scan that uses ionizing radiation beams to create an image of the body’s internal structures.

Lung function tests

Tests used to determine breathing function by measuring lung airflow rates, capacity and volume. Also known as pulmonary function test.

Types of treatment

Occupational lung diseases have no specific treatment. People are encouraged to stop smoking if they do smoke, and to remove the source of exposure to substances causing disease. If there is a continuing risk of exposure, this will inform the decision about whether or not to stay at work. For those who are short of breath, inhalers such as salbutamol can be used. Oxygen therapy may also be used.

Potential complications

Although lung cancer is one of the occupational lung diseases that can result from exposure to cancer-causing substances (carcinogens), it also occurs as a complication of other occupational lung diseases, such as asbestosis.

Prognosis

Prognosis varies according to the type of occupational lung disease you have. In general, there is no cure, and the more scarring to your lungs, the poorer the prognosis.

Lungs

The pair of organs in the chest responsible for breathing.

Prevention

The only way to completely prevent occupational lung diseases is to avoid the occupations they are common in. However, with proper health and safety regulations in place, there is little need to worry about what are very rare lung diseases. Such safety precautions include:

  • Wearing personal protective equipment;
  • Substituting hazardous substances for safer alternatives when possible;
  • Improving ventilation;
  • Educating workers about the risks of lung disease, and;
  • Having a trained occupational health expert conduct risk assessments of your work environment.